- The Washington Times - Monday, May 6, 2002

The spring grumbling from Republican leaders and conservative activists who want President Bush to be more engaged in the daily battles in Congress appears to be subsiding.
Nothing unites a party more than a common enemy who is storming its political gates. The Democrats are just six seats away from controlling the House and, with it, the next two years of Mr. Bush's unfinished agenda.
There seems to be an emerging understanding and acceptance that Mr. Bush, unlike President Clinton, is not into legislative micromanaging; especially in an election year when let's face it the real political battle is not about getting laws passed, but about defining what the parties stand for in the future.
The president knows that little if anything is going to get passed this year. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, is not about to give Mr. Bush any victories in the Senate this year if he can help it.
And, Mr. Bush does not want to waste political capital on battles he knows he cannot win right now. Instead, he has picked his fights carefully while keeping the focus on a lean-and-mean agenda: building up homeland defense, pursuing the war against terrorism and strengthening the U.S. economy through trade expansion, oil exploration and terrorism insurance.
Unfortunately, most of his agenda is being blocked or delayed in the Democratic-controlled Senate. The trade bill is being held hostage to Democratic demands for federal health insurance for workers who lose jobs when companies move plants overseas. The defense and homeland security bills are stuck in neutral. Mr. Bush's core energy plan i.e., drilling for more oil on U.S. land is dead. Judicial nominations are barely moving. And, there is no action on terrorism insurance.
Beyond this agenda, from which Mr. Bush has not wavered, he is smart enough to know he also needs to protect his party's political flanks from Democratic attacks on a range of other domestic initiatives issues that are not going anywhere this year, but that are major concerns among the independent swing voters who could affect some close House and Senate races.
Mr. Bush's popularity, lower now but still in the high 70s, has begun to cut into the Democrats' base among Hispanics, Catholics, Jews and blacks to some degree. That has Democratic leaders wildly promoting their bread-and-butter issues to keep their political base from further eroding.
A new fire-breathing campaign video by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) attacks Mr. Bush for "promises not kept" on health care, prescription drug benefits, the environment, education funding, Medicare and Social Security all issues where polls show the Democrats in front of the Republicans.
The DNC video is an attempt to reconstruct an agenda and to energize the party that has been suffering from a low-grade malaise over the past several months, not to mention a lack of leadership.
In response, Mr. Bush has begun replaying his "compassionate conservatism" campaign, embracing a menu of domestic initiatives ranging from prescription drug assistance for the elderly to mental health insurance, though without much in the way of new spending for any of them.
But, the bloated, big spending farm bill is perhaps the biggest test that this administration faces between principle and politics.
This is a bill that repeals the market reforms enacted six years ago to wean farmers away from huge government subsidies. It would pay bigger subsidies to fewer and wealthier farmers and thus boost production, which will eventually drive down farm prices. It is hard to imagine a worse bill than this.
Mr. Daschle, who has been bashing the White House on fiscal responsibility, thinks the bill will help several farm state Democrats facing tough races that he needs to remain in power. At the same time, the biggest share of the subsidies would go to states in the South and Midwest that Mr. Bush must hold if he is to win a second term in 2004.
The White House is betting heavily that the outcome of this fall's elections will be determined by its eventual success on the economy, homeland defense and the war against terrorism. These issues top every poll measuring major voter concerns, and Mr. Bush and the Republicans lead the Democrats on all three.
This is why the president will be spending less time in Washington and more time on the campaign trail this year, raising huge amounts of money for his party to keep the House under the GOP's control and win back the Senate.
At the same time, he will be defining the GOP's campaign message: Tax cuts have brought the U.S. economy back from the brink of recession, boosted incomes that have strengthened families and put us on the road to recovery. And, a coalition-backed global war is out to defeat terrorism and make America more secure.
The Democrats may have many domestic priorities they want to spend money on, but it's going to be hard to overcome Mr. Bush's larger and much more powerful message.

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